Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Harvey is an exploration of the importance of human imagination and the way twentieth century American culture looks at the irrational. Some critics, particularly British reviewers, have seen the play as an indictment of the psychiatric profession. However, the focus of the play is not really Elwood’s drinking or his hallucinations (if they are hallucinations; the staging implies that Harvey is real). Rather, the salient feature of Elwood’s character is that he is eccentric and different. Mary Chase’s inspiration for the character was neither a drunkard nor insane, so far as she knew. When Chase was a child, some boys were throwing snowballs at a poor old woman. The playwright’s mother shooed away the hooligans and told her daughter never to be unkind to a person others say is crazy, because often they have a deep wisdom. That lesson stuck with young Mary, and she turned it into a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy.

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British critic Sandy Wilson, himself a successful writer for the comic stage, lamented what he saw as the play’s glorification of dementia. It is nothing of the kind. If there is a national or ethnic element in Chase’s fantasy, it is not American but Irish, or at least Irish American. Both of her parents were born in Ireland, and while the main character’s name, “Dowd,” sounds Anglo-Saxon, the play is peppered with Irish American names: Ruth Kelly, Verne McElhinney, Dr. McClure, and Ed Hickey. Thus, at the end of the first act, when Wilson reads in the encyclopedia that the pooka—the species of manifestation Harvey represents—is from old Celtic mythology, Elwood’s irrationality, if it can be called that, becomes clear: It is of the Celtic variety, a frank acceptance of a reality beyond the material and the empirical. It is that, and not alcoholism or psychosis, that Elwood represents.

Elwood is not an escapist either. The giant rabbit is not his escape from reality: In act 3 he reveals to Dr. Chumley that Harvey can stop time and take Elwood anywhere he wants to go. However, Elwood is always happy wherever he is. Dr. Chumley, on the other hand, wants desperately to escape and describes an interlude in Akron with cool beer and a beautiful and sympathetic woman. Moreover, if there is any character who wants to avoid the realities of life, it is Veta. She wants to stop Elwood’s drinking, all the while she is planning a high-society cocktail party. She thinks the psychiatrists are perverts because they talk about sex urges and warns Myrtle Mae to avoid the libidinous interests of men, while simultaneously trying to marry off Myrtle Mae. She objects to the notion of a Celtic superstition, yet she expresses a belief in astrology. By being such a mass of contradictions, Veta prepares the audience for the play’s denouement, in which she acknowledges that, given a choice between Elwood’s reality and the norm, she chooses Elwood’s reality.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

Friendship
The friendship between Elwood P. Dowd and Harvey is implied in the way that Dowd carries an extra coat and hat for Harvey, in the way that he opens doors and lets him walk through and reads to him. Except for the fact that one of the participants is imaginary, it seems like an ideal friendship. When Dowd tells Nurse Kelly about how he spends his days in bars, or when he promises his sister that he will go to the Western Slope Water Board to apply, he always includes his friend, saying ‘‘Harvey and I. . . .’’ Several times in the play, he phones places looking for Harvey when he is not around. He commissioned a portrait of them together, which is something that only the closest of friends would do. It is clear that this relationship is the most important thing in Dowd’s life, and that, like the best friendships, Elwood P. Dowd enjoys being with his friend Harvey, is proud of him, and wants to spend as much time with him as he can.

The play does not answer the question of why Dowd finds the company of an imaginary friend so fulfilling. There seems to be a clue in the fact that he took responsibility for caring for his mother, and then she died. That, according to Veta, is when she first noticed that he was hanging around with Harvey, and it would make sense that caring for an invalid would isolate him from a real social life and drive him deeper into his imagination. But Judge Gaffney, talking to Myrtle in Scene I of Act II, gives the impression that Dowd lost his real friends because he took up with Harvey. When she asks if it is true that he was liked by other men and women, the Judge replies, ‘‘Oh, not since he started running around with this big rabbit. But they did once.’’

Dr. Sanderson, suspecting that Harvey might be a replacement for some friend in his past that Dowd lost, asks him, ‘‘Dowd, when you were a child you had a playmate, didn’t you? Someone you were very fond of—with whom you spent many happy, carefree hours?’’ Chase’s script is not willing to allow his attraction to Harvey to be understood in such simplistic psychological terms: his childhood friend was not named Harvey, but Vern McElhinney.

Sanity and Insanity
This play raises the question of whether believing in something as unlikely as a six-foot-tall rabbit actually qualifies as insanity. At first, the members of the psychiatric profession, represented by the staff at Chumley Rest, think so, and they are willing to commit Elwood and then Veta against their wills, on the suspicion of holding such a belief. According to Dr. Chumley, ‘‘the function of a psychiatrist is to tell the difference between those who are reasonable, and those who merely talk and act reasonably.’’ The fact that Dowd is initially considered ‘‘reasonable’’ by the psychiatrists and that his sister is deemed unstable, only to have the diagnoses reversed almost immediately, is an indication that the standards about sanity at Chumley’s Rest are none too solid.

The question of sanity is pushed even further when the play offers proof that Harvey actually does exist, as when doors open and close by themselves or the dictionary that Wilson consults has the phrase, ‘‘and how are you Mr. Wilson?’’ If Harvey actually does exist as a supernatural being, then there is nothing at all wrong with the way that Elwood Dowd behaves. In raising this possibility, readers are challenged to not easily accept the notion that talking to an invisible friend equals insanity.

Dr. Chumley, an eminent psychiatrist, believes in Harvey by the last act of the play, and furthermore his belief in Harvey expands his imagination, giving him the freedom to daydream beyond his everyday life. His dream of what he would do with Harvey’s help is very specific, down to the name of the girl he would spend his time with and what they would drink (beer, he insists, but not whiskey). If believing in an invisible, six-foot-tall rabbit is to be considered a sign of insanity, then insanity can be considered a sign of a liberated mind that has gotten beyond the troubles of the mundane world. If imagination is insanity, then it seems to benefit the psychiatrist who is supposed to be the gatekeeper of sanity.

Science and Technology
Dr. Chumley’s formula 977 is expected to shock Dowd back into reality, so that he does not see Harvey anymore. For his family and friends, this cure offers the hope that Dowd can be returned to normal and can live among other people once again, hold down a job, and become a productive member of society. ‘‘If this shock formula brings people back to reality, give it to him,’’ Judge Gaffney recommends. ‘‘That’s where we want Elwood.’’ All of the characters agree that this would be the best way to treat the problem until they find out that the treatment is not specific. As the cab driver explains, it would not only remove Dowd’s hallucinations but also it would remove the pleasant part of his personality as well. Science is unable to distinguish between the part of the mind that hallucinates and the part that makes a person take time to look at sunsets and watch birds. In the end, Veta decides to ignore the recommendation of the scientists and to accept the opinion that is implied in the cab driver’s speech, that it is better to have her brother with both his sweet disposition and Harvey than to obliterate them both.

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